Two of the hottest teams in the NBA -- the San Antonio Spurs and the Utah Jazz -- will square off Friday at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, which is the most important game between the two squads in a decade.
The Spurs and the Jazz are in the hunt for the playoffs and would be in the postseason if it started right now, but with just four games separating the fourth team in the Western Conference standings from the 10th place squad, winning as often as possible in the final three weeks is paramount.
The Spurs are the hottest team in the West, having won a season-high five straight games (all at home) on the strength of clutch late-game execution, a return to stingy defense and the dominating play of star forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
Aldridge was hobbled for a few weeks around the All-Star break with knee and ankle injuries but has returned with a vengeance. He had 27 points and nine rebounds in the Spurs' most recent win, 98-90 over Washington on Wednesday and has now been the team's leading scorer in 50 times in the 64 games he's played this season.
The Spurs (42-30) extended their NBA record for consecutive winning seasons to 21 with Wednesday's victory. San Antonio has held four of its last five opponents to fewer than 100 points.
"We've lost enough to refocus, as simple as that sounds, but we talked about it," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said about his team's improved work on defense. "They are an intelligent group and they realize if we don't get that back together, we've got nothing because we slip out offensively."
Kyle Anderson added 16 points for the Spurs in the win over Washington while Rudy Gay had 10 points off the bench and Murray took 10 rebounds for San Antonio.
Anderson said playing better defense has become the team's mindset.
"It is what we are talking about before that first five go out," he said. "It is what we want to hang our hats on."
The Jazz have been the best team in all of the NBA over the past two months, and have clawed their way back into the playoff picture by winning 22 of their past 25 games.
Utah's latest win was Thursday when they easily handled Dallas 119-112 to capture its 10th victory in 11 games in the month of March. Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell led the Jazz with 26 points in the win, while Ricky Rubio added 22, Derrick Favors hit for 19, Joe Ingles scored 18 and pulled down 10 rebounds, and Rudy Gobert and Jae Crowder tallied 11 points each for Utah (41-31).
"We have to stay focused," Gobert said after his team's only loss of the month, at home against Atlanta in Tuesday. "We have to stay confident and stay hungry. We have to keep trusting each other. But we gotta know right now that we can beat anyone or lose to anyone."
Thursday's win was critical for the Jazz. It was the first of a three-game road trip that continues Friday in San Antonio and then heads to Oakland for a game against the Warriors.
Knowing what's at stake, Gobert said he believes the Jazz have a good mindset and understand the importance of this road swing.
"We have the mindset that we're on a mission," Gobert said. "Every game is going to be tough in its own way."
Utah has won the first three games this season against the Spurs and have a four-game overall win streak versus San Antonio. The Spurs owns a 103-81 all-time edge in the series and have won 70 of the 92 games the teams have played in the Alamo City.